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US House and Senate: Time for a Consensus Energy Bill

By John Nikoloff, ERG Partner

The last time Congress managed to pass a major energy bill was the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.  And for the past ten years, until recently, it appeared that the only hope for another would be a significant realignment of the House, Senate and White House.  But recent events suggest an opportunity may be here to pass a consensus energy bill. 

Last week, two key House leaders said they are ready to work with Senate members to pass a consensus bill in 2016.

The two House Committee chairs for Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources, Fred Upton (R-MI) and Rob Bishop (R-UT) issued a joint statement noting, “our goal is to get something to the president that he will sign into law.”  To ERG Partners, this signals an opportunity that must be seized by the Senate energy leadership.

Clearly, a bill that the president will veto is a waste of time and effort, and given the bipartisan efforts in the Senate and House that have taken years to get to this point, we hope Upton and Bishop are serious.  They said last week, “We remain committed to working in a bicameral, bipartisan manner and remain hopeful we can set aside our differences and move ahead with a formal conference between the two chambers.”

The Senate passed the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 in April with an 85-13 vote.  The bill includes $2 billion for grid upgrades, and would boost research into energy storage that can be used to improve the dependability of power coming from intermittent sources like wind and solar.  The Senate bill also offers strong energy efficiency provisions, including key provisions of the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act that Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH) have worked to pass for the past five years.

The House passed its version of the bill, substituting an energy measure adopted by the lower chamber last December which included provisions relating to US exports of crude oil.

Because the House version is significantly different from the Senate version and contains provisions supporting fossil fuels – and generated veto threats from the White House – when the House named conference committee members, the Senate declined to do so, usually a strong signal that the Senate had major issues with the House bill.

Last week, 23 environmental groups joined in asking the Senate to refuse a conference with the House, saying the House legislation “undermines the progress our nation needs” on energy issues, as long as the provisions relating to fossil fuels stay in HR 8. 

But the all or nothing at all attitude of advocacy groups too often leads to stalemates, which in turn create new targets for advocates who bemoan the lack of action.

ERG believes it’s time to take many of the concrete steps included in the two bills, on which both sides of the aisle and Capitol can agree.  For example, grid upgrades and energy efficiency are almost universally recognized as needed.  And we have long supported provisions to support biomass use in renewable energy projects.  The Senate legislation would define biomass as “carbon neutral,” and recognize that sustainably produced and managed biomass can make major contributions to clean energy production and help with carbon sequestration.  The definition would give force to federal policies that would encourage states and companies to include biomass energy projects in their energy tool kits.

Lisa Murkowski (R, AK), Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee and the Committee’s ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-WA), were the key figures in mark up and passage of the Senate bill.  The two have said they hope to move the bill before the August Congressional recess. 

With the House leadership now calling for reconciliation on a bill the president will sign, and key Senators ready to move on the legislation, ERG hopes that the Senate can quickly name conferees and get to work on that veto-proof conference report and the first  major piece of energy legislation in ten years.